Foreign interference becomes issue du jour as government offers lacklustre response

Last week, a bombshell report came out demonstrating that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service found there was an organized Chinese-government effort to influence the results of the 2021 federal election. Conservative Party Leader at the time, Erin O’Toole (pictured) was one of the most outspoken voices on the issue of foreign interference in Canada’s internal affairs. Photo credit: Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier


On election day, Canadians crowd into churches and school gymnasiums to mark a ballot for their preferred candidate. The ballots are counted, and the candidate who is successful is sworn in as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. 

If it all sounds very boring, it’s because it is. 

A hallmark of the western world is our free and fair elections, which are integral to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Here at home, Canadians accept the results even if they may not like them, because we intrinsically understand that elections are won fair and square.

This isn’t to say there hasn’t been musings about foreign interference, especially in light of the issues that have played out in the United States. First, there was the role Russia attempted to play in using social media to create discord and sway the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Then there was the denial of the election loss by Former President Donald Trump in 2020. Each event has created fractures in society that have been hard to ignore.

Federally, foreign interference has been a topic of conversation over the course of the last several years, and Conservative MPs have raised concerns about interference in both the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

One of the most outspoken voices on the issue was former Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who went on the record multiple times in the days following the 2021 election to claim that foreign interference on part of China had taken place. According to O’Toole, this cost the Conservatives several seats in key suburban Vancouver and GTA ridings. 

O’Toole’s cries of foul play went mostly unheeded and were chalked up more to sour grapes than actual threats to our electoral system. Canadians for the most part did not see this as a top ranking issue, and while the media wrote what O’Toole said, there was no public uproar to explore the issue further.

As O’Toole’s profile shrank in the wake of his ousting as Conservative leader, the issue was swept under the rug. Sentiment finally seems to be shifting though, and the first world privilege of ignoring threats posed by autocratic regimes who want to influence the outcomes of Canadian elections might not be an option for much longer. 

Last week, the Globe and Mail dropped a bombshell report noting that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service concluded that there was an organized Chinese-government effort to influence the results of the 2021 election. According to the Globe, the interference came in the form of illegal contributions to preferred candidates, social media disinformation campaigns, and the hiring of international students to support the activities of select candidates.

To date, the response from the Prime Minister has been disappointing. Trudeau has basically shrugged his shoulders, signalling that he isn’t all that much interested in taking concrete action to figure out what happened in 2021, or how to prevent future instances of foreign actors from meddling in Canadian elections. 

MPs, to their credit, are taking action. There is a parliamentary study set to get underway, and the committee will hear from cabinet ministers, security agencies and government officials to determine what role China played in interfering with the 2021 election. The committee will then make recommendations, to which the government will adopt or reject. 

Choosing to not meet the moment before us may benefit the Liberal Party politically, but it will have devastating impacts for Canadians who trust that when they cast a ballot, it is in a fair and free election. Sadly, it’s a tall order these days to hope the government does the right thing. 

Josie Sabatino is a Senior Consultant at Summa Strategies, focused on providing strategic insight and helping clients meet their objectives in an ever changing and complex political and regulatory environment. Prior to joining Summa, Josie spent nearly a decade in political communications and most recently served as the Director of Communications to the Hon. Erin O’Toole, former Leader of the Official Opposition.

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